I know of no better thermometer to your spiritual temperature than this, the measure of the intensity of your prayer. – Charles Spurgeon
“To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us. If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a characteristic in our lives. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ…When we pray, God slowly and graciously reveals to us our evasive actions and sets us free from them.”
Prayer is not about us and our selfish desires. It is about God teaching us to see things from his point of view. Prayer is learning to have the heart of God, “to desire the things that God desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”
Prayer was central to those in the Bible who knew God. Jesus always was speaking to his Father. The apostles gave themselves continually to prayer (Acts 6:4). Throughout the history of Christianity, the giants of the faith have been characterized by a life of prayer. Martin Luther wrote that “I have so much business that I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer. John Wesley wrote that “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” William Penn wrote of George Fox that “above all he excelled in prayer”.
Those examples in the faith can discourage us. After all, we probably don’t pray three hours a day like Martian Luther did. It helps to realize that prayer is a learning process. It is something that we grow deeper in over time as we allow the Holy Spirit to work in us. Foster gives the example of a marathon runner. Most of us would not be able to run a marathon today. However, if we trained over a period of time, we would be able to better run the race. It is like that with prayer. If we continually allow God to move in us, we can expect to pray with more authority a year from now than we do now.
We are often taught by society that the future is set, that it cannot be changed. Whatever will be will be. That outlook discourages meaningful prayer. Part of learning to pray with authority is to realize that our prayers can and do change the future. “The Bible pray-ers prayed as if their prayers could and would make an objective difference.” “Certain things will happen in history if we pray rightly.” That is both liberating and sobering.
Since prayer is a learning process, we will sometimes fail as we learn to pray. That’s okay, the main thing is to pray. Do it! We are free to ask questions of God and to seek his guidance on how to do it. We can experiment. One thing Foster did was to make note of every reference in the Bible on Jesus’ teaching about prayer, and paste those references on sheets of paper. The exercise shocked him, because he found out that his experience in prayer did not line up with what Jesus taught. He writes: “Either the excuses and rationalizations for unanswered prayer I had been taught were wrong, or Jesus’ words were wrong. I determined to learn to pray so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conformed to my impoverished experience.”
Foster notes that when Jesus prayed for others he never concluded the prayer with “if it’s your will”. Nor did the apostles or the old testament prophets pray that way. “They obviously believed that they knew what the will of God was before they prayed the prayer of faith.” There is a proper place for praying for God’s will, such as when we want to know God’s heart, or when we pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. But there are other times where we know what God’s will is. In those instances we are to pray confidently, remembering his promises. Sometimes praying “if it’s your will” can be a cop out for our lack of belief.
Realizing that prayer is a learning process helps us to keep from dismissing it as something that doesn’t work. Foster gives the example of a TV that doesn’t function. If you turn on the TV and it doesn’t power up, you don’t then assume there is no such thing as a working TV. You check if it’s plugged in, and use other troubleshooting techniques. The same is true of prayer. If our prayers don’t work, we should troubleshoot rather than assume there is no such thing as prayer. “Perhaps we are praying wrongly, perhaps something within us needs changing. Perhaps patience and persistence are needed. We listen, make the necessary adjustments, and try again. We can know that our prayers are being answered as surely as we can know that the television set is working.”
To pray is to be in contact with God. When we are in him, his life and power flow through us into others. If we are not connected to him, nothing will happen with our prayers. All other praying is meaningless words (Matt 6:7) Prayer is in large part listening to God. Intercessory prayer starts with listening to God. When we quiet ourselves and listen more to him, that is when we can begin to pray for others.
Listen to God first in the small things. It’s our tendency to pray for the hardest things first – like for God to heal someone from blindness or cancer. But God also works in the small physical issues – like healing an ear ache or a cold. When we see God working in the little things, our confidence in him grows. “Success in the small corners of life gives us authority in the larger matters. If we are still, we will learn not only who God is, but how his power operates.”
When praying for others our biggest problem is usually not a lack of faith. Rather, it is a lack of compassion. Truly and deeply caring about others often makes the difference in how effective our prayers are for people. Having compassion for someone while you are praying is evidence that God is calling you to pray for them. Compassion characterized every healing that took place in the New Testament. “If we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”
Prayer doesn’t need to be complicated. Jesus teaches us to ask like a child asks his father (Matt 7:9). When my little boy asks for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he knows I will give him one. He doesn’t worry about my character, he knows I will provide for him. “Children do not find it difficult or complicated to talk to their parents, nor do they feel embarrassed to bring the simplest need to their attention. Neither should we hesitate to bring the simplest requests confidently to the Father.” Children are also good at imagining the way things should be. We can pray like that too – allowing God through the guidance of the Spirit to show us the way things should be – people healthy, marriages healed, parents loving their children.
Pray for your church, pray for the time when you worship together. Your pastor needs your prayers. Often pastors can sense when people are praying for them, and when they are not. Pray for God to heal sexual deviations. God created our sexual drives, and he can heal them. If you have children, pray for them and with them. Pray for their protection, and for God’s blessing upon them. Pray that God will give you insight and compassion for every person you meet. If you believe that God loves every person, you can also have confidence that he is working in every person.
Pray against evil. Our enemy the devil is like a prowling lion, looking for who he can devour (1 Peter 5:8). Pray for God’s protection for you and for others. Remember, you are saved and protected and given authority over evil by the blood of Christ.
Don’t wait to pray until you feel like it. Prayer is a discipline, and remembering to pray requires diligence. Just like learning a new musical instrument, prayer takes practice. And pray all the time! We can set aside a specific time to pray, but we can also do it throughout the day, as we do our daily tasks. As we listen to God, he will remind us.
[This blog post is part 2 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book. The series introduction is here.]